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It is strange how this instinct manifests itself. It seems it is very basic with all living creatures and just kicks in when needed. I won’t generalize, but can only vouch for my personal experience with that.
When I was very little, maybe six or seven years old, I remember swimming in the sea, in the “petit bassin” – the children’s pool – in Alexandria, when I saw a friend outside the parameter of that safe children’s pool, and with the thoughtlessness of a child, started wading my way to her, unaware of the danger I was heading for. A few steps outside the children’s pool there was a jutting rock on which a man sat fishing. I had to cross this rock to reach my friend, so going around it, at the farthest tip of it facing the sea, I hit a whirlpool. To this day I fully remember the horrible feeling of being turned around and around and pulled downwards into the sea. I kept pushing with all my might, my puny little arms fighting the whirlpool’s pulling force. I kept going down, then pushing up to the surface, once to face the sea, and the second time to face the shore. But I fought like a tiger, and screamed like a banshee. What saved me was the fisherman on the rock. He bent forward, hooked his fingers around the straps of my bathing suite in the back, and with one hand deposited me on the rock beside him. I remember gasping for breath, then bursting into tears while he was telling me to walk to the end of the rock and wade back to shore and would be safe. That was the first time in my memory that I faced a life threatening situation and instinctively fought with all my might to survive it. And survive it I did. Of course after that incident our parents enrolled my brother and I in the swimming team at the club where we both learned to swim like fish.
The next time my survival instinct kicked in was in a situation where I was at the mercy of the elements again, but had absolutely no control whatsoever in bringing about a happy conclusion. This was when the flight I was taking back to Cairo from Rome hit an air pocket and dropped for seven thousand feet. I could actually remember the time the plane was dropping and thinking to myself : Is it time to pray now? Oh GOD! That was all the time I had before it actually hit the atmosphere again and resumed flying safely back to Cairo. But in those few seconds my will to live was very very strong. True I had no control over anything that was happening, but that one strong cry of “Oh GOD” was the extent of my supplication to the Almighty to spare my life, and, in hindsight, it seemed to have worked.
My third brush with eternity came with my car accident, where considering the extent of my injuries, I had a 50/50 chance of survival. I knew, cognitively, that I was very badly injured, but not once during my month-long hospital stay did I FEEL that I could die. It just did not make sense. At my worst, when I could hardly breath because of a collapsed lung and a hemorrhage that left me extremely weak, I remember thinking to myself: Look, no one can help you, you are the only one who can do that. The best thing to do is forget about everything else and concentrate on drawing in one breath at a time and letting it out, then drawing in the next breath. I was concentrating so hard on staying alive that, the one time I could have slipped away into the thereafter, I alerted them by saying: I am going to faint! The nurse saved me by pumping the blood that was being transfused into me at the maximum, getting my hospital bed to lift my legs and lower my head, and sounding the alarm to bring in all the doctors to take over bringing me back. After that it was still uphill work, surviving all the trauma suffered in the accident, the fighting for seven months in physical therapy to regain the use of my right arm, but I did. During that time, and before I could use that arm properly again, I taught myself to write with my left hand. It just never crossed my mind that I could die, and I guess because that was my belief, I just did not. I cannot take credit for surviving that accident, there were a great many excellent doctors and nurses who did their utmost to keep me alive, and ultimately it was God’s will that I do survive, but I think that my survival instinct, which might be called a fighting spirit, was really the factor tipping the balance in favor of my survival.
All the above were incidents where my physical survival was at stake, but there were far worse threats to my mental and emotional survival that took far more courage and where a mightier battle was fought than any previously experienced. The scars of these battles are the deepest and the person who survived these battles is a totally different person from the one who entered that fray. The pain still felt by the major battle fought and somehow survived is still too great to be talked about, maybe one day I could write about it, but for now, suffice it to say that in each life there are battles fought every day which very few people know about, and every day there are survivors who have valiantly fought a bloody battle and came out of it wounded, battered and weary, but alive.
Right now I am fighting yet another battle and hope to God to come out of it a better person than the one who went in.
23 February 2014